A NOTE FROM STEVE: It may seem odd to profile an employee who’s retiring, but Dennis Collett isn’t just any employee. He’s one of the longest-tenured members of the Cornerstone family who’s been with the company since 1992, and on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, he’ll officially retire. Cornerstone is more than just a company, however, and Dennis’ longevity is proof that lives can be changed here, and that family means more than the sharing of genetics. He’s been a valuable part of this company’s success, but more than that, he’s been a brother to many. Let’s take a minute and give Dennis a big round of applause.
He thinks about the day he first arrived in East Tennessee, an Ohio kid fresh out of his third treatment center, and how he almost walked away from the open doors of hope and freedom, the other side of which lay a 28-year-future with Cornerstone of Recovery.
For Dennis Collett, the outgoing Director of Utilization Review for Cornerstone, that young man’s future is now a week away from becoming the past, as Collett officially retires on Jan. 3, 2020. For a guy who’s spent the majority of his Cornerstone career cajoling, arguing, pleading, fighting and raging for coverage from insurance companies for the drug and alcohol treatment center’s patients, his impending retirement strikes him with a whole lot of nostalgia and tenderhearted reflection.
“I’ve been trying to wear the tough man vest about it not being that big of a deal because it’s been coming for a long time,” he said. “I’ve got a good replacement with Kevin (Daggett), because I was worried about that and making sure that was OK. But it’s been kind of weird, the last week or so. I’m short, and it’s got me thinking about this whole journey.”
Dennis Collett: The story begins ...
One which started in December of 1991, on his third stint in treatment at Carrington Hospital in Cincinnati. He was an alumni, but this time around, a counselor named Charlie Bass, Dennis recalled, shot straight with him.
“After about three weeks in residential (inpatient treatment), he said, ‘You know, Dennis, you’re gonna have to do something different this time. You can't go around your old haunts and old friends, and it might not hurt you to do a geographical change,'" Collett said.
As it turned out, Collett’s brother, Terry, worked for CSX Railroad, and the Employee Assistance Program representative for CSX was Jack Mangan, and Terry talked to Jack about his brother.
“Jack brought me into his office and said, ‘Hey, look, you need to do something different. It wouldn’t hurt you to go to Tennessee and stay at this place called Cornerstone of Recovery,’” Collett remembered.
Cornerstone, of course, was the brainchild of William J. “Bill” Hood, an old acquaintance of Mangan’s who was once a high-level executive with the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). After losing his career to alcoholism, Hood had turned his life around, worked in the drug and alcohol treatment field for years and started his own rehab two years earlier. Mangan was impressed by the results Hood and his team had achieved with some of Mangan’s CSX referrals, and he didn’t hesitate to recommend it for Collett.
“I fought it at first, and then it occurred to me that he was probably right,” he said. “I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but my family worked out something with Bill, but when we got here, there was a little mishap or miscommunication, and I almost used it as an excuse to walk out the door. I got up and said, ‘I knew this would happen! This is bullshit! I might as well go home!’
“And that’s when Martha Hornsby (one of original employees of Cornerstone and an active member of the company’s Alumni Association) said, all sweet, ‘Dennis, why don’t you come with me?’ And when we got in the other room, she turned to me and said, ‘I suggest you sit down, shut up and let us work this out so you can do the next right thing!’ All I could do was look at her with eyes like Big Bird and say, ‘OK!’
“I could have gotten up and walked away, and none of this would have ever come to fruition,” he added. “I was that close to being gone again. But I needed to hear it, and the next thing you know, here I am.”
An affliction turns into a career
After his first 10 months as a resident, Hood approached Collett with an opportunity: running the facility’s Sober Living program, of which Collett was a part. He lasted four to five months on the job, he remembers, before Hood fired him.
“He said, ‘Dennis, I’m going to have to let you go, and here’s why: I’ve set you up. You’re in charge of the guys you live with, and that’s not fair to you,’” Collett said. “He could tell, I just had this dread, because if one of the guys had to leave, I felt responsible. I just had this weight of, if they get kicked out or leave, it’s going to be my fault if they drink and die. Bill saw that and said, ‘I really think you do need to come back in a year, but only if you want to.’”
Within a short period of time, Collett received two job offers — a counselor’s position at the Detoxification Rehabilitation Institute (DRI, which merged with Helen Ross McNabb in 1997), or the facility’s “detoxification center for public inebriants,” officially known as DRI-Doc, which would close close in 2001. Unsure of which position to accept, Collett asked Hood for his advice.
“He said, ‘Dennis, start at the bottom of the ladder: Go where the street drunks are,’ so I took the position at DRI-Doc,” Collett said. “I did that for probably six or seven months, and I was at DRI-Doc when Bill died.”
Hood’s sudden death in October 1993 was a stunning blow to the Cornerstone family, a tight-knit community that still included Collett. In the weeks after Hood died, Collett found himself stopping by Cornerstone more and more, and the staff offered him a job as a night shift supervisor of the facility’s adolescent program. For a while, he juggled a full-time position at DRI-Doc with more than 30 hours a week at Cornerstone, until he returned to Cornerstone for good to offer support for both Admissions and Utilization Review.
It’s almost ironic, he added with a laugh, that his life’s work — negotiating with health insurance providers to get coverage for patients seeking help for addiction and alcoholism — started out on such adversarial footing.
“I’ve always hated insurance companies! I remember when I first got my driver’s license and had to get insurance, back when they made you, I thought then that insurance companies are such a scam,” he said. “I’ve done everything from working construction to being in the military to working on the radio for a few months as a deejay. I was an assistant manager at a department store once where I did the ads — I would write the commercials and tape them, and that’s what you would hear in the store as you walked around.
“And of course, I missed a decade being an alcoholic and a drug addict, but even then, I was learning in the school of hard knocks. But I hated insurance companies. However, I had trained myself, pretty much, to be able to talk, so now I was on the phone, fighting insurance companies for people to get days.”
Dennis Collett: A witness to changing times
When he first started, 25 patients was a full census. Cornerstone occupied a couple of buildings in a strip mall, a stone’s throw from the four facility campus on 25 acres it sits upon today, and Collett has been there for it all. A new building just down the road that opened in 2003 (and now home to Cornerstone’s sister facility, Stepping Stone to Recovery); and the move in 2017 to its current location. As much as the physical business has changed, he added, so too have the complexities of the health insurance that pays the bills.
“When I think back to my first treatment, when I was 27 or 28 years old in 1982, that was a time when you didn’t even have to pre-certify going to treatment,” he said. “If somebody needed to go, you’d send them. You’d call about the benefits, and there was no pre-certification for that. Insurance companies would pay for it, but it got taken advantage of so bad — people would get sent to residential treatment because they got caught smoking one joint by their parents — that’s when managed care stepped in.
“Then it got so tough, because the guidelines were based on mental health, and it was like trying to get insurance approval to pay for a stay at a psych ward. That went on a good decade, maybe longer, and it was so hard to get treatment covered that a lot of residential facilities closed down. Bill started Cornerstone as it was starting to turn around, but for years, we couldn’t get anything out of companies like Cigna. Eventually, though companies like BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, who at first we didn’t do well with, started to see us as a reliable treatment center.”
And as Cornerstone’s reputation grew, so too did the relationships between them and the company’s Utilization Review Department, led by Collett. As Cornerstone refined its treatment approaches and streamlined its programs, the company also began to understand what information was required by insurance companies in order for them to pay for coverage.
“The biggest different came through us providing good, clinical information to get people covered,” Collett said. “Scott Anderson (Cornerstone’s Chief Clinical Officer) had made sure our people are trained to give the good clinical information that we need to get coverage. As a result, we’ve been able to form relationships with people on the other end, to where they almost do everything they can to help us get days approved.”
And in shepherding the UR Department, Collett has tried to bring some of his own experience to the table. His first treatment stay was paid for carte blanche, he said, and the second time around, he didn’t stay long enough for insurance to be an issue. But the third time? At Carrington Hospital, before he came to Cornerstone?
“I was there 2 ½ weeks, and they came to me and said, ‘Hey, insurance only covered the first few days, so you’re into us for $12,000,’” he said. “And immediately I thought, ‘You’re just telling me that now? That’s a reason to get high again!’ We try to let people know as soon as we can what we’re going to be able to do and how long we’re going to be able to do it, because they don’t need any surprises.
“I never would have imagined, as a kid, fighting insurance companies to get people the days they need to fight alcoholism and drug addiction. It felt like a calling, and it’s never occurred to me to do anything else. Have there been opportunities here and there? Yeah, but honestly, and I’ve said this more than a few times, this job isn’t just for anyone. I’ve seen people come and go who ran away from it like they were on fire because they got so upset and angry and were crying and asking, ‘How can you possibly take being turned down?’
“The people who enjoy doing it, they’re a little twisted, I’m afraid,” he added. “All of the people in this department have this fire in their belly when they’re talking to insurance companies, doing everything they can to get somebody the help they need, and I can’t imagine me doing anything else this long.”
Dennis Collett: The 'bittersweet freedom' of retirement
As Jan. 3 draws nigh, however, he has no clue what retirement has in store. He’s never been a bigger planner — “I’ve always kind of flown by the seat of my pants,” he said — and there are a number of opportunities that sound appealing. Working on his music … searching out good coffee shops … hitting the road for California and hitting every 12 Step meeting he can find along the way.
“I’ve got nothing, really, written in stone,” he said. “For the first three, four or five months until I reach full retirement age, I’m probably going to play it by ear.”
The only certainty, he added, is that he’s going to miss the Cornerstone. It’s been his place of employment for almost three decades, but it’s also been his family. There’s a scene in the movie “Goodfellas,” a Steadicam shot as protagonist Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, walks through his favorite bar and introduces viewers through internal monologue to a host of colorful friends: Anthony Stabile … Frankie Carbone … Fat Andy, Freddy No Nose, Pete the Killer, Nickey Eyes, Mikey Franzese, Jimmy Two-Times.
The list goes on and on, and so can the names out of Collett’s memories of former co-workers — his brothers and sisters, some of whom went before him into retirement, and some who no longer walk this earthly plain.
“A lot of people who have been at Cornerstone for a long time talk about the way Cornerstone used to be and about how it’s lost some of its luster — that it used to be this hometown, loving, special place that maybe because it’s bigger or more corporate isn’t as special, but I don’t believe that,” he said. “Even though we’re bigger and the departments are more separated than they used to be, it’s still got that — that family, connected atmosphere that I don’t think you can dial up anywhere else. It’s a family, and retiring, for me, is kind of a bittersweet freedom. It’s hard to explain it.
“You know that old Groucho Marx movie where he’s trying to join a fraternity, and when they offer him a spot, he turns them down and says, ‘Any place that would have me as a member, I don’t want any part of!’ I look at Cornerstone kind of like that!”
He laughs, hearty and long and genuine. It’s an infectious sound, and he readily acknowledges that humor does a good job of help stem the flow of a few tears. Tough guy though he is, Cornerstone is a part of his heart, and he’s certainly found his place as part of the Cornerstone family. He’ll be back to visit, no doubt, but his departure from the parking lot on the first Friday of 2020 will be an emotional one.
“I came down here to get sober, and the next thing you know, I’ve got a life,” he said. “Bill Hood told me that nothing happens by accident, and today, I believe that. I got here in February of 1992, worked for four or five months, then came back in 1993, and I’ve now worked here over 25 years. What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Five questions …
I ask five questions, with no premeditation or forethought put into what they’ll be. Dennis answers in the same manner.
Question: Greatest sports event you’ve ever attended? Answer: “Cleveland Browns vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, in the winter, where it was so cold it was like the Ice Bowl of Green Bay. It was 20 below, with a wind chill of about 40 below, and it was just awesome.”
Me: “You’re nuts.”
Dennis: “I know, right? I think a lot of it had to do with being able to brave it … or just survive it!”
Q: What’s your favorite movie? A: “My kids make fun of me for this, but I’ve always loved it, and I love the rest of them — ‘The Terminator!’”
Q: Favorite restaurant? A: “IHOP! At any drop of the hat, if somebody wants to go eat, I’m ready to go there.”
Q: Favorite recovery cliché? A: “It’s not a cliché, because I only heard it once, but it was, ‘If you get drunk before you do a Fifth Step, you’ve waited too long.’ There was an old-timer at Rockford, talking about that, and I was over there rubbing my hands together, because my Fifth Step was as big as a door and had been laying under my bed for months. He kept glancing at me, and I asked, ‘How do you know when the right time to do it is?’ And that’s what he said to me — ‘If you get drunk, you’ve waited too damn long!’ I got up and ran from that meeting to go do it!”
Q: What’s your favorite memory of Bill Hood? A: “I had been living in the halfway house for four, five or six months and was doing mirror imaging in the IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program). It was their way of not only making me talk about my issues but seeing if I was trainable as some kind of a counselor. So I was doing groups with Bill, and we were in a group therapy session, and there was a guy talking about some of his issues. We were all just kind of sitting there, and Bill was looking at him. He was a big fidgeter, and when that guy got done, Bill leaned forward, put his hands together, closed his eyes, started rocking back and forth, and he started talking to this guy, and to us, about his way of how he would deal with that situation. I can’t remember the exact cause or response, except to watch Bill do that was mesmerizing. He had everybody in the palm of his hand when he was doing it. I remember walking away from that group, talking about how I’d like to learn to do that, and he just kind of laughed and said, without ever looking at me, ‘I guess that makes me your mentor.’ I remember that moment like it was yesterday, because I felt like he was acknowledging that maybe he could mold me into something, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
P.S.: Dennis, this one's for you. If anybody can appreciate it with the proper sense of humor and keen appreciation for its quirkiness, it's you. Love you, buddy, and I'm gonna miss you. Don't be a stranger. — Steve